The U.S. Olympic Trials: Another Lost Opportunity

LOS ANGELES, Jun. 30, 2008 – Over the next five weeks, you will see an advertising blitz on NBC and its affiliated channels including CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, USA Network and others to get you to watch the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, starting August 8.

One would think that since a major pull of the Games for American audiences will be the American team, the U.S. trials for the 2008 Games would play a leading, highly-orchestrated role for the U.S. Olympic Committee and its national governing bodies in the weeks leading up to the Games.

Apparently not.

In a curious display of the disconnect in the United States between the governing bodies of the three major sports for Beijing and the U.S. Olympic Committee, the scheduling of the American trials for gymnastics, track & field and swimming are not only uncoordinated, but the latter two sports directly overlap!

If we take a look at the way award-winning, serialized dramas like HBO’s “The Sopranos” are constructed, there is a story line which moves throughout the series, introducing characters and then inviting us to follow them through their entanglements during the season. Shouldn’t there be the same thing during at least the Trials events for these three sports that will carry most of the audience for the Games?

The gymnastics event in Philadelphia was relatively short, at just four days, two for men and two for women, from June 19-22. But then come the track & field trials with eight sessions over ten days from June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Oregon and swimming with eight straight days of events from Omaha, Nebraska from July 29-July 6.

Why?

It’s understandable that these sports are interested in picking their teams at a time of their own choosing, to give the coaches and athletes the “right” amount of time to get ready for Beijing. However, none of these athletes are going to Beijing right away, since the Games don’t start until August 8 – fully a month after the track & field and swim trials are over – and large blocks of the U.S. team will be in training camps outside of China (the track team will train in Japan) until very close to the time of their competitions rather than simply the start of the Games.

So couldn’t these three events, at least, have been coordinated to give U.S. Olympic athletes the best chance to shine: live coverage of all Trials competitions on cable and at least nightly highlights on NBC, plus live weekend coverage on the network?

One of Peter Ueberroth’s disappointments in his tenure as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee has been the inability to create any serious cohesion between the USOC and the national governing bodies. Although such things aren’t discussed publicly, the national governing bodies want nothing from the USOC other than money. Just the most recent example is USA Track & Field’s grudging, unhappy acceptance of a USOC requirement that its Board of Directors be substantially reduced in size so that the organization will have, according to USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel, “a governance structure that will allow USA Track and Field board members to make decisions based on what is best for the sport as a whole, rather than what may be best for a specific constituent group.

Faced with potentially losing several million dollars in USOC funding or even being decertified as the national governing body for track & field, the USATF announced it would comply and reduce the size of its board from the current 32 to an as-yet undetermined number.

Given this lack of cooperation on matters as basic as what a national governing body should do, why should we expect the USOC and the national governing bodies to get together on presenting America’s team in the best possible light?

At least there’s a common logo for the Trials. But that’s something the USOC can – and did – do on its own.

P.S.: If you are thinking, ‘hey, this is OK, these are separate sports,’ consider the structure of the USOC and the national governing bodies as the NFL or NBA and its member clubs. Do you think for a minute that the commissioner’s offices of those sports don’t try to maximize the attention and importance of their playoffs, similar to our Olympic Trials, and coordinate every aspect for maximum impact?

Now you see why so many still think of Olympic sports as “amateur” and we’re not talking about the athletes any more.

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